Musings —04.10.2017 08:05 AM—
The attack [on Syria] instantly transformed news coverage of the Trump administration. Suddenly stories about infighting and dysfunction were replaced with screaming headlines about the president’s toughness and footage of Tomahawk launches.
But outside its effect on the news cycle, how much did the strike actually accomplish? A few hours after the attack, Syrian warplanes were taking off from the same airfield, and airstrikes resumed on the town where use of poison gas provoked Mr. Trump into action. No doubt the Assad forces took some real losses, but there’s no reason to believe that a one-time action will have any effect on the course of Syria’s civil war.
In fact, if last week’s action was the end of the story, the eventual effect may well be to strengthen the Assad regime — Look, they stood up to a superpower! — and weaken American credibility. To achieve any lasting result, Mr. Trump would have to get involved on a sustained basis in Syria.
…One thing is certain: The media reaction to the Syria strike showed that many pundits and news organizations have learned nothing from past failures.
Mr. Trump may like to claim that the media are biased against him, but the truth is that they’ve bent over backward in his favor. They want to seem balanced, even when there is no balance; they have been desperate for excuses to ignore the dubious circumstances of his election and his erratic behavior in office, and start treating him as a normal president.
You may recall how, a month and a half ago, pundits eagerly declared that Mr. Trump “became the president of the United States today” because he managed to read a speech off a teleprompter without going off script. Then he started tweeting again.
David Frum, one of the few principled Republicans left, made essentially the same point over on Twitter:
This bias exerts itself extra strongly with a bad actor like Trump. The worse he does, the more eagerly the pundit seeks something to praise
— David Frum (@davidfrum) April 7, 2017
This – I say as a former full-time journalist, a teacher of journalism, and a lifelong student of journalism – is a profound failing of the journalistic craft. From the first day in J-school, you see, we are trained to “get the other side of the story.”
So, we ferret out the “other side” – even if that side of the so-called dialectic is a proven liar, or a devoted neo-Nazi, or is just one deranged voice in opposition to millions of sane ones. And we bestow upon that single addled voice as much credibility and prominence as the many on the other side of the divide.
That dynamic – along with the equally false one that prohibits us from passing “value judgments” – gives the solitary lunatic/white supremacist even more credibility. Even when we know that Donald Trump is a racist, sexist conspiracy nut who is unfit for the position of dog catcher, let alone President of the United States. Even then.
My (aspirational, ideal) journalism takes judicial notice of reality: i.e., racism is bad, sexually assaulting women is bad. It is okay to say so; it is imperative we say so. And, ipso facto, it is bad journalism to call white supremacy “white nationalism” and neo-Naziism “the alt-Right.”
My (perfect world) journalism rejects giving as much prominence to a misogynistic loser who lives in his Mommy’s basement as I would to an accredited surrogate of Hillary Clinton. That is doing a disservice to reality, and disservice to one’s readers.
Will any of this change? Perhaps. Maybe. I’ve seen scattered evidence, since January 20, that Messrs. Krugman and Frum aren’t alone: many journalists are starting to accept that they are partly culpable for Trump’s improbable victory, and are doing what the Russians (ironically, given what should be the top news of 2017) call samokritika – self-criticism.
Journalists are starting to accept that some of the traditional journalistic aphorisms – “getting the other side” and “no value judgments ever” – aren’t doing us, or them, any good. They create a false reality, because they’re fake news.
And we all know who benefitted most from the explosion in fake news in 2016, don’t we?